All posts by Nafis Hasan

Rosie’s Place Donation Drive Sheds Light on Pervasive Gender Bias

Last December, the newly formed student organization, Tufts Graduate Women in Science & Engineering (GWiSE, Tufts chapter of New England GWiSE), participated in a city-wide philanthropic effort. A donation drive was organized for Rosie’s Place, a shelter focused on helping poor and homeless women; founded in 1974, it is the first women’s shelter in the US. The drive was meant to run from Dec 11-15, and collect tampons, pads and any other menstrual hygiene products.

However, when Siobhan McRee, a Genetics grad student who co-founded Tufts GWiSE, went to place a donation box in the Jaharis lobby, she was informed that she wasn’t allowed to do it, as there is already a “Toys for Tots” box in the lobby. Additionally, the security personnel informed her that she would need approval from the Friedman nutrition school to place a box in the lobby. McRee had already obtained permission from Associate Dean Dan Volchok, following precedence of other donation drives (e.g. – GSC winter clothing drive 2015). Dan V was quick to solve the problem, according to McRee, but she didn’t feel comfortable putting the bin in the lobby anymore. Instead, she decided to try the program offices in M&V 5th floor.

McRee was surprised to find that there was resistance from the administrators too. “You don’t expect pushback from certain groups of people”, McRee explained (most of the office admin are female). The general consensus among the admins, led by one strong proponent, seem to be that the donation bins and the flyer for the drive (approved by the dean’s office) were inappropriate and would make men uncomfortable. She was told to post the flyers and put the bin in the women’s bathroom. A supporting admin later offered their office space to host the bin and collect the donations. Tufts GWiSE informed the student body accordingly and donations were effectively collected from Dec 13-15.

Despite the pushback, McRee believes that the drive was successful, “we filled up the back of a car”. She added that the pushbacks might have actually helped the drive in some way. But, she was dismayed to find that people at Tufts would harbor such old-fashioned views that women’s reproductive issues should not be discussed in public, especially on the biomedical campus of a liberal institution. She believes that this is an indication that sexist attitudes towards women’s health, that are rooted in patriarchal ideology, need to be addressed to create a safe working environment for women and to fight against discrimination and sexual violence. When asked for his comments, Dan V stated that the events that transpired are not representative of the greater Tufts community, and Dean Dan Jay mentioned that he had not heard of the pushback from department admins. Contrary to expressed opinions as to how the drive might offend men, male community members actively participated in the drive, further supporting Dan V’s convictions re: the Tufts community. 

While the Dean’s office at Sackler was very helpful, the response from Tufts university administration seemed lukewarm in comparison. McRee’s husband, after learning of the incident, tweeted to the university and the president. Patrick Collins, executive director of the Tufts PR department, reached out to McRee to take note of what happened. However, as McRee described, there was no followup afterward and she felt that they weren’t proactive about the matter and didn’t offer an apology that a Tufts employee would pose such roadblocks in holding a donation drive for women’s health.

This kerfuffle may seem an isolated incident in a largely liberal institution which has vowed a fight against sexual harassment and violence against women. However, from a broader picture, this doesn’t seem so isolated. It is true that Massachusetts sets a higher standard for women’s rights compared to other states across the nation – from popular support for Planned Parenthood to not having any taxes on feminine hygiene products (otherwise known as “tampon tax”, a discriminatory legislature considering that Viagra enjoys a tax-free status). However, just as racial inequality in the city of Boston exists in a hidden but structural manner, the same is true for violence against women. This violence takes the shape of entrenched patriarchal views that still seem to be pervasive in a liberal community, besides the ubiquitous, more overt forms of violence such as domestic abuse & rape. These views and barriers impede the improvement of women’s health, as McRee’s experience shows, in a manner that is hard to fight against (re-routing, administrative bureaucracy). “I was told to just do it and ask for forgiveness later, but I’m a non-confrontational person, and, this shouldn’t be the norm” McRee explained as to how she felt discouraged regarding putting a donation bin in the lobby.

Such structural barriers to women’s health issues have disproportionate effects along the racial line – the city of Boston reported in 2015 that 69.7% women living in poverty are non-white. Additionally, these barriers affect an even more marginalized community, that of the transgender population, who are routinely turned away from homeless shelters and therefore are at greater risks of harm to their health especially since a significant portion of them turn towards sex work to meet basic needs. The need for menstrual hygiene products are even greater in this community, considering the myths surrounding their bodies and the taboo regarding their identities. In recent years, Boston’s aid to the homeless has grown scarce, especially after the closure of Long Island shelter and with a sizeable portion of this population yet to be rehabilitated. This drive probably could have been more effective and served the needs of a greater portion of the homeless population, if not for such roadblocks.

In the wake of the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements, agency and ownership of a woman’s body has come into the limelight once again. The belief that women’s health should not be discussed in public is rooted in patriarchy, and that menstruation can cause discomfort to men serves to solidify its ideological grasps on men and women alike. These ideas also rob a woman of her agency and ownership of her body, while adding stigma and shame. These methods of structural violence are more subtle and harder to disavow compared to assault and rape, as the Aziz Ansari case has shown, but they need to be faced and dismantled as well if gender equality is to be achieved at Tufts, Boston or any other community for that matter. McRee believes that both men and women should be part of the conversation surrounding such issues and that men, just as they helped with the donation drive, can play an important supporting role in advocating for better policies to improve women’s health. 

A step towards addressing such issues is already being organized by Tufts GWiSE, in partnership with New England GWiSE – “Beyond breaking the silence, building a collective”, a gender-inclusive forum focusing on sexual harassment in academia will be taking place on March 3rd, 12-6 pm in the Sackler building. The forum intends to discuss sexual harassment issues in the STEM fields, explore current policies at local graduate schools that address such issues and develop a plan of action to collectively advocate for improved policy action. If interested, please RSVP here.  Additionally, events by other groups on campus are also being organized to discuss the state of women in biomedical science. For future events and more information, keep a lookout on the weekly Goods and social media outlets – you can follow @TuftsGWiSE on Twitter and Facebook

Lessons from #GradStudentTax

The recent tax reform bill passed in the House caused much uproar in the academic community as it removed the provision in the current tax code that waives the students’ school tuition. This provision, known as qualified-tuition-reduction provision (section 117(d)(5)), allows for the waived tuition to be exempt from taxable income; removal of this provision would therefore add to the tax burden of the students, who are already living marginally with an average income of ~$30,000/year. Sackler students, who currently receive $33,500, would see their taxable income increase by ~$20,000 (annual tuition) which would push them to a higher tax bracket (15% to 25%). It should be noted that this tuition waiver provision does not affects students in their 6th or higher year of study at Sackler as tuition is not charged past the 5th year.

Fortunately, the Senate’s version of the new tax bill retains this provision, for now. It remains to be seen whether the merged version of the bill will keep or remove this provision. In the meantime, graduate students have been organizing nationwide; the Sackler graduate student council organized a call your representatives event last Tuesday. If you haven’t gotten a chance to make your voice heard yet, consider signing onto FASEB’s letter to Congress asking them to protect the waiver provision.

The fight to protect this provision has raised other questions among grad students, particularly, why do universities bill tuition and then waive it? It appears that the waiver is not done in the same manner across all private universities. For example, Cornell University considers its tuition waiver as a qualified scholarship, which is tax exempt and not affected by the removal of the provision in the House bill. But this still allows for the question to be asked as to why universities just don’t charge $0 for tuition or if they can NOT charge it after 5 years, why they can’t do it for the years before. The answer seems to lie with the fact that universities are using the billed tuition as a way to generate revenue, especially in the sciences. This may sound sinister, but the reality is more complex. As scientists & trainees supported mostly by government grants, we are all aware of the overhead & indirect costs that are involved with doing research and that a percentage of every grant awarded to a faculty member at the university is matched by the NIH and given to the university administration. This support is necessary for maintaining a research environment, but it also begs the question of whether taxpayer money should be used to fund administrations of private universities with large endowments, particularly at a time when budgets for scientific endeavors are being slashed. Additionally, given that private universities, which enjoy a non-profit status, are behaving more and more like for-profit institutions, one is left to wonder whose interests are being represented at the administrative level.

The grad student tax debate has also raised the question of the role of graduate students in the workplace. Traditionally, graduate students have been considered as trainees rather than employees and a certain paternalistic relationship exists between faculty/administration & graduate students. However, since the National Labor Relations Board’s decision to recognize graduate students as employees, thus allowing them to unionize, this trainee status is being questioned more and more. Graduate students have faced obstructions from the university administrations when they have tried to unionize, and faculty have been divided on the topic of whether students should unionize (one professor going as far to tell grad students to focus on work rather than wages). Tufts currently has a graduate student union, but the Sackler school doesn’t have one at the moment, reasons for which lie with the content student body and the lack of a teaching requirement as part of the stipend.

It seems that the tax bill requires major revisions, for reasons separate from the grad student tax. This gives us, academics, time to organize around this issue and keep putting pressure on our representatives to protect the tuition waiver for graduate students. This also allows us to have a broader discussion about the roles of graduate students in the workplace, and how universities use funds that they receive from the public through the government funding bodies. Transparency from the administration’s side is likely to win them more supporters among students and faculty alike, rather than a nebulous state of operations.

 

NIH signs PACT with big pharma to boost immunotherapy

On October 2017, the NIH announced a formal collaboration between the public and private sector as a new leap in the War On Cancer. The collaboration, termed PACT for “Partnership for Accelerating Cancer Therapeutics”, is a five-year project that will focus first on cancer biomarker identification & validation and then on developing novel immunotherapies. As Dr. Francis Collins, Director of NIH, stated to the press, “we have seen dramatic responses from immunotherapy… We need to bring that kind of success – and hope – for more people and more types of cancers, and we need to do it quickly.” He believes that this collaborative effort between the NIH and 11 heavyweight pharmaceutical companies (see below for complete list) will “help achieve this success faster.”

This new collaboration will allocate $215 million over the five years, with NIH contributing $160 million over 5 years (depending on availability of funds) and each pharma company contributing $1 million/year (totaling 55$ million over 5 years). The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), a congressionally established nonprofit, and the U.S. FDA will be supervising this partnership. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a trade group found in 1958 to advocate for public policies that encourage drug discovery for patients, will also provide support for this initiative.

PACT seeks to identify why certain patients respond so dramatically to immunotherapy, as evidenced by the recent observations of near-complete eradication of pediatric lymphomas, and how such treatments can be expanded to a larger patient population and a wider range of tumors, especially solid tumors which have not had much success with immunotherapy despite a lot of initial promise. To that end, this program will first perform cancer biomarker discovery, validation and standardization and then integrate these biomarkers for patient recruitment into oncology trials for immunotherapy and combination trials. PACT also aims to embrace the data sharing aspect of collaboration to “better coordinate clinical efforts, align investigative approaches, reduce duplication and enable more high-quality trials to be conducted.”

As part of the Cancer Moonshot program and PACT collaboration, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) recently awarded cooperative agreements to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Stanford Cancer Institute, Precision Immunology Institute and the Tisch Cancer Institute to Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, and MD Anderson Cancer Center. These cancer centers will serve as Cancer Immune Monitoring and Analysis Centers (CIMACs) where tumors will be deep sequenced and immune profiled. The data obtained will be archived in a immune response biomarker database created at Dana Farber, which is slated to act as a Cancer Immunologic Data Center (CIDC). These cancer centers will form a network of laboratories that can support both basic research efforts and adult and pediatric immunotherapy trials.

Dr. Thomas Hudson, vice president of oncology discovery and early development at AbbVie, who represented the industry at the PACT press conference, stressed on the need for collaborative efforts to drive innovations in immunotherapy, despite the competitive nature of the field. Based on his prior experience in large scale public-private sector collaboratives, such as the International Cancer Genome Consortium, he believes that this collaboration will ultimately prove to be more fruitful than expected for all parties involved. Besides Abbvie, the other pharma partners include Amgen, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Celgene Corporation, Genentech, Gilead Sciences, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen Pharmaceuticals (Johnson & Johnson), Novarits and Pfizer.

 

Sources –

https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-partners-11-leading-biopharmaceutical-companies-accelerate-development-new-cancer-immunotherapy-strategies-more-patients

https://www.nih.gov/news-events/multimedia-partnership-accelerating-cancer-therapies

https://www.statnews.com/2017/10/12/nih-pharma-cancer-moonshot/

https://cen.acs.org/articles/95/web/2017/10/Big-pharma-joins-NIHs-Cancer.html

Michael Irwin, MD, to deliver 42nd Charlton Lecture, Oct 25

The 42nd annual Charlton lecture will be held on Wednesday, October 25, 4-5.30 pm, in the Sackler DeBlois Auditorium. The lectureship, established in 1975 in honor of Mr. Earle P. Charlton, has since evolved to include a poster competition that serves as a platform to recognize outstanding research work performed by graduate and professional students on the medical school campus. This year, the poster competition will be held on Tuesday, October 24 and Wednesday, October 25 in Sackler 114. 

The keynote lecture will be delivered by Dr. Michael Irwin, the Norman Cousins Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Science  at UCLA Geffen School of Medicine, Director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the UCLA Semel Institute, Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at the UCLA Semel Institute, and Director of the Center’s Inflammatory Biology Core. 

Mr. Earle P. Charlton was a renowned entrepreneur and a social benefactor, as exemplified by his legacy, the Charlton Trust. Mr. Charlton established a chain of stores throughout Massachusetts back in 1890, before merging with the Woolworth company and expanding to the west and Canada. The Woolworth company would later go on to acquire several brands throughout the twentieth century. However, due to increased competition in the retail sector, the company chose to focus on a select brands and is today represented by the Foot Locker stores. Mr. Charlton passed away in 1930, and is commemorated by the Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River, MA, a town which benefitted greatly from his entrepreneurship and generosity. (Source – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._P._Charlton_%26_Company)

About the Speaker

Dr. Michael Irwin, the Norman Cousins Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Science  at UCLA Geffen School of Medicine, Director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the UCLA Semel Institute, Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at the UCLA Semel Institute, and Director of the Center’s Inflammatory Biology Core. His ongoing work is focused on the “reciprocal interactions between the immune- and central nervous systems, and the role of sleep disturbance on the molecular and cellular inflammatory signaling pathways that influence depression- and physical health risk with a focus on cancer survivors and older adults” (source). 

Dr. Irwin is best known for his pioneering studies that showed the relation between stress and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and the immune system through receptor activation mediated mechanisms. He also showed that b-adrenergic receptors played a major role in inflammation and anti-viral immunity in a variety of disease conditions ranging from physiological to psychosomatic ones. His broad range of work integrates data at various levels of biological investigation – from the mechanistic details of signaling pathways to epidemiological data and clinical case studies. He is also the recipient of a large number of awards for his ground-breaking work. More details on his work can be found here

Judith Campisi to deliver 2017 Gerhard Schmidt Memorial Lecture

The annual Gerhard Schmidt Memorial Lecture,  on its 15th year after it was established in 2002, will be held on September 27, Wednesday, 4 pm at Behrakis auditorium, Jaharis building. The lectureship was established originally by the Department of Biochemistry, now a part of the Developmental, Chemical & Molecular Biology Department at the Tufts University School of Medicine, in memory of Gerhard Schmidt, M.D., to commemorate his life and contributions to the fields of nucleic acid and phospholipid research. 

Gerhard Schmidt, medicine.tufts.edu
Dr. Gerhard Schmidt (source – medicine.tufts.edu)

Dr. Schmidt joined the Tufts faculty in 1940 after migrating to the U.S. from Europe due to the increasingly tense political climate in the 30s. While he was working at the University of Frankfurt, Dr. Schmidt published a seminal paper describing enzymatic processes of deamination. In 1933, when Dr. Schmidt became aware of the Nazis’ intentions of purging “Jewish science” in his department, he fled to Italy. After a series of short-term fellowships took him to Naples, Stockholm and Florence, as well as Kingston, Ontario, New York and St. Louis before coming to Boston (source).  Soon after his arrival, Dr. Schmidt published a milestone paper where he described a novel technique to determine the DNA and RNA quantities in tissues. In 1973, Dr. Schmidt was awarded an emeritus position at Tufts and the same year, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Until he passed away on April 24, 1981, Dr. Schmidt had continued to regularly work in his laboratory despite his poor health in his latter years. Besides being a dedicated and hard-working scientist, Dr. Schmidt was an avid supporter of the arts, particularly chamber music and literature; he was also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

campisi gero.usc.edu
Judith Campisi, PhD (Source- gero.usc.edu)

This year, Judith Campisi, PhD, will deliver the Schmidt memorial lecture titled “Cancer and Aging: Rival Demons?”. Dr. Campisi is a world leader in the field of aging research, and currently is a professor of biogerontology at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. Dr. Campisi received her B.A. in Chemistry in 1974 and Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 1979 from SUNY Stony Brook. She did her post-doctoral training at Dana Farber Cancer Insitute, before  moving on to join the Biochemistry Department at Boston University School of Medicine in 1984. From there, Dr. Campisi moved on to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) where she headed the Carcinogenesis & Differentiation group, and the Department of Cell & Molecular Biology before taking on the position of co-head of Center for Research and Education on Aging in 1999. 

She is also a member of the SENS Research Foundation Advisory Board (a non-profit that seeks to develop rejuvenation biotechnology) and an adviser at the Lifeboat Foundation (non-profit NGO that wants to harness technological advancements to “save humanity from existential risks”). She is also the co-editor in chief of the scientific journal Aging, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and recipient of the Longevity Prize from the Ipsen Foundation and the Olav Thon Foundation prize (source), besides multiple other awards and fellowships. 

Dr. Campisi is mostly known for her work on the role of aging on a variety of disease conditions, including cancer. She has worked extensively on senescent cells and how they may also disrupt normal physiological functions in tissues thus contributing to cancer progression. She has also described the hallmarks of senescence, including the senescence-associated secretory phenotype. She has described her research interests as following – “Aging is controlled by genes and the environment, and poses the largest single risk for developing a panoply of diseases, both degenerative (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease) and hyperproliferative (e.g., cancer). Why do organisms age, and why do these diseases rise exponentially with age? My laboratory aims to understand the molecular and cellular basis of aging in mammals.” (source)

For more information on her research, check out the following resources – 

Campisi Lab publications, Buck Institute 

Buck Institute CEO Brian Kennedy in conversation with Dr. Campisi

Campisi J, d’Adda di Fagagna F 2007 Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol. Cellular Senescence: When bad things happen to good cells. 

Senescent Cells, Cancer and Aging – Dr. Judith Campisi, SENS Foundation

Now what? Science Activism Beyond the March

The effects of the March and the outpouring of support for scientific research and evidence-based policymaking are already showing, as exemplified by the increase in NIH funding approved by the Congress instead of the Trump administration’s proposed cuts. However, this should not make us complacent in our demands. The EPA’s scientific advisory board is being replaced by representatives of agencies it is meant to regulate, climate change action is still being hindered and the environment is increasingly threatened, and the anti-vaxxers just succeeded in invoking an outbreak of measles in Minnesota. As Dr. Harris Berman, along with the deans of other medical schools in Boston, recently wroteWe must harness this energy and ensure that the March for Science on Saturday marks the beginning of closing the rift that got us here in the first place”, we should also ensure that this march becomes the global movement it is meant to be. The enthusiasm & sense of urgency that brought out the scientists out on the streets on April 22 should be harnessed to battle the anti-science hysteria currently spreading across the nation. The only way to do it would be to not isolate, but engage the public, to whom we have a responsibility for putting their faith in us, in meaningful ways to improve science literacy through relevant communication. Here we present some additional resources for you to get engaged in science activism after the March:

  • Communicate Your Science – Increasing visibility of scientists and science among the general public would help to shore popular support for scientific research. The #ActualLivingScientist campaign on social media helped dispel the alienation between the scientific community and the people who support their work. Share the importance of your work by writing or speaking about it online or offline. For example, check out The People’s Science’s new initiative, The Field Project, where researchers are encouraged to write a brief summary of their work for the “broadest possible audience”. Talk about your work and how you got into scientific research through our “Humans of Sackler”. Or even better, write for us if you want to practice your writing and communicating skills. Visibility Matters!
  • Volunteer in Science Outreach – The greater Boston area provides ample opportunities for science outreach programs, especially with large-scale events like Cambridge Science Festival. On a smaller scale, you can volunteer for the BIOBUGS, the Brain Bee, the annual mentoring opportunity at Josiah Quincy Upper School and more. Keep an eye out for emails re: these events & more from the Sackler Graduate Student Council.
  • Engage in Policy Action – Since the election, scientists have started to take on political action themselves. One such group is 314 action, who seeks to elect “more leaders to the U.S. Senate, House, State Executive & Legislative offices who come from STEM backgrounds”. The Union of Concerned Scientists, who have been fighting for evidence-based policy to solve social & environmental problems since 1969, hosts an advocacy resource where you can learn how to take action with or without getting involved with the organization. If you would like to write about policy, this writing program by Rescuing Biomedical Research can be your first foray into that world. You can also get involved with the new student organization at Sackler, Scientists Promoting INclusive Excellence #@ Sackler (SPINES), which seeks to increase visibility of minority scientists among other goals.
  • Educate Yourself – If you are not sure on how best to participate in science activism, you can start by learning. Follow the official March for Science blog to learn how the movement is advancing. Check out this online class being offered by faculty from University of Michigan on how to “more effectively discuss knowledge”. Get involved with the Emerson Science Communication Collaborative between Emerson media students and Sackler students. For an even extensive gamut of resources, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has an online toolkit for you to start getting involved!

If you know of any other organizations or groups involved in science literacy, education, outreach & communication, please leave us a comment below!

A guide to making effective protest signs

With the first ever March for Science two weeks away, a lot of us are sitting and scratching our heads thinking up the perfect rhyme, or the perfect punchline to write on cardboard that would express our outrage or our incredulity against proposed cuts for the NIH, or our passion for our favorite scientific topic, or even why science is awesome and important. We have so much to say, except there is only so much space on the cardboard or even the banner. Given that brevity is the mother of wit, we believe that you can come up with awesome signs for the March by yourself. However, we just wanted to provide some tips to help you along the way! If you happen to make a sign similar to someone else, don’t lose heart. Repetition = reinforcement, so it will show your solidarity with others. 

1. Use literary devices – Parallelism is a great way to get your message across and make it memorable. If you can make it rhyme, even better since it can turn your message into a chant! As the linguist Daniel Midgley describes, both parallelism and rhyming make slogans readable and memorable. In addition to rhyming, clever usage of common memes will also help making your sign memorable, such as the one below. 

Source: L May/Twitter

2. Be Positive – While the proposed cuts to the NIH budget may not sound funny at all and the future of scientific research looks bleak under this administration, negativity will not help win supporters. Instead, spin your negativism into a humorous catch-phrase that either expresses your incredulity (eg – “OMG GOP WTF”) or your positive attitude (eg – “We Are Better Than This”). 

3. Use Symbols – Your message can be personal and defined based on what you want to say, but  you can still express your solidarity with the overall cause by including the symbols of the protest (eg – the Boston March for Science has incorporated the official logo of the March for Science with its own twist by adding the Zakim bridge over it).

Official March for Science logo
Boston March for Science logo

4.  Focus on the Issues – Emotional reactions to President Trump and his proposed changes are inevitable. However, given that he has been in office for 3 months, it would not help to make signs that say “Not My President”. Instead, make sure your signs reflect the issues at hand – climate change, funding for scientific research, evidence-based policymaking, etc. Your sign should tell the rest of us about the cause you support in the specific context rather than a knee-jerk reaction, which may be valid but out of context. So, be informed about the specific goals of the march, and use those points to shape your message. 

5. Don’t be Partisan – Remember, it’s a non-partisan march, but it is not apolitical. Both democrats and republicans have utilized science as a tool to make political gains. However, this march is beyond petty partisan politics. This is something much more fundamental – it is about the defense of basic truths. While the anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers seem to support the Republican party more often than the Democrats, such issues affect all of us and the March for Science will not achieve its goals by displaying partisanship. Alienation is not what we need right now, but rather, we need to be able to win over the other side. 

Just a quick note – the March for Science is taking place on Earth Day, April 22. So PLEASE MAKE SURE you take your signs with you after the march, or recycle them and if you would like, help with clean-up afterwards. This is also our responsibility, not only as scientists, but also as members of society taking part in a civic and political action. 

Hope to see you all at the March, with your awesome signs.

For Science, In Solidarity!

Harder, Better, Stronger, Faster through CRISPR?

After a year-long intense and bitter dispute over the rights to patent use of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology in mammalian cells, the US patent office ruled in February that “there is no interference” and that the patent belongs to the Broad Institute. Needless to say, effects of this verdict extended beyond the emotions of the scientists locked in the dispute, as the shares for Editas Medicine, established by Feng Zhang from the Broad, saw a 29% jump by the close of trading. What does this mean for other biotech companies looking to harness the power of this novel technology? It would mean that they can only license the use of Broad’s patents if Editas passes on a specific disease-related application since Zhang holds the patent for application of CRISPR for disease applications. However, this does not mean that Doudna and Charpentier, the two heavyweights from the losing side of this patent battle, are going to miss out on benefitting from their discoveries. UC Berkeley has already filed patent for application of CRISPR technology on all cells, which the Broad is not contesting. Biotechs who had invested in obtaining patents through UC Berkeley may actually be able to benefit regardless of the loss in the patent fight.

The promise of CRISPR-Cas9 in disease applications, while still in its nascent stages, is a real possibility. CRISPR has yet to enter human clinical trials en masse for such purposes, although last week a team of Chinese scientists reported successful editing of normal human embryos. This hasn’t deterred popular science news outlets from speculating whether the era of designer babies is finally within sight. This may have been compounded by the recent release of a report by an international committee convened by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine that cautiously suggests germline editing of human embryos sometime in the future, albeit “only for compelling reasons and under strict oversight”. The panel also suggested that the genome editing can only be undertaken after much more research on its risks and benefits. This report appears to be a cautious first step towards unlocking the so far forbidden zone of germline editing, and a move away from the moratorium previously established in December 2015 by an international group of leading scientists.

Does this imply, then, that Gattaca or similar engineered societies are upon us? It is a possibility that heritable diseases may one day be cured, but scientists warn us that engineering complex traits such as intelligence are still a pipe dream. These utopian societies are based on the fantasy of engineering the human species to be “harder, better, stronger, faster”; however, they completely ignore the scientific evidence that such adjectives usually are applied to traits that require reciprocity between the genetics and the environment. While genetics play a part, the environment of the individual, along with other factors such as diet, lifestyle and socioeconomic status heavily influence such traits. Even making small changes in the genome has been a challenge, as shown by the efforts to “fix” the mitochondrial genome of babies using the three parent approach.

The question then becomes whether we can engineer designer babies or not, but rather should we be doing such a thing. It would help to note that this obsession with making human beings “better” is rooted in eugenics and racial supremacy, and history is rife with such examples. What the futurists or people who propagate such ideas are missing out on is that evolutionary changes are not meant to make any species more “efficient” as is understood in technological vernacular, but rather help the organism adapt better to the changing environment. This understanding perhaps would help shed more light on the role of the environment and pull us out of our obsession with genetic determinism. Maybe if we ARE to build better human beings, we should start by fixing our environmental problems, such as pollution, climate change, deforestation, the threat of extinction to a large variety of organisms, etc. The promise of genetic engineering should not blind us to what is more important at the moment. Like they say – “one bird in hand is better than two in the bush” and if we don’t do our part to save the environment, we won’t have any bushes or birds left.

21st Century Cures Act: Boosting biomedical research, but at what cost?

Co-authored by Andrew Hooper & Nafis Hasan

In a remarkable display of bipartisanship, the Senate passed HR 34 and President Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act into law on Dec. 13, 2016. The original bill was introduced and sponsored by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) on Jan 2015 and garnered co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, including the support of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Space, Science and Technology. The House approved the original bill in Oct 2015 and after a year on the Senate floor where the bill underwent several amendments proposed by both Democrats and Republicans, the Senate approved the bill on Dec 6 2016 and passed the bill on to President Obama to be signed into law.

This law is meant to accelerate drug development and bring cutting edge treatment to patients, revise the current status of mental health research and treatment for disorders, with a strong focus on the current opioid crisis sweeping across the nation. The law is also of significant importance to biomedical scientists as it will expand funding  for certain fields, keeping in line with the Precision Medicine Initiative launched in 2015. More specifically, the Cures act will provide funding for specific NIH innovation projects such as the Precision Medicine Initiative ($4.5 billion through FY 2026), the BRAIN initiative ($1.51 billion through FY 2026), the Cancer Moonshot project ($1.8 billion through FY 2023) and the Regenerative Medicine (stem cells) program (30$ mn through FY 2026). In addition, this law will stimulate innovative research by awarding investigators with the Eureka Prize for “significant advances” or “improving health outcomes”. The law also seeks to promote new researchers through its Next Generation of Researchers Initiative, an attempt to solve the postdoc crisis in academia. As a response to the lack of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields, the law also contains provisions that will attract and retain such scientists in “priority research areas”.  Finally, to further encourage early-stage researchers, the law authorizes the establishment of programs to help in the repayment of student loans and raises the cap on the repayment assistance available to the researchers.

Besides ensuring funding for biomedical research, this law aims to address privacy concerns brought up by experts regarding patient information in the era of precision medicine (for more details, check out our analysis of the precision medicine initiative). Under this law, certificates of confidentiality will be provided to all NIH-funded researchers whose studies involve collection of sensitive patient information. This information will be withheld by the NIH, but can be accessed upon requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act. On the other hand, in order to make sure data sharing is made easier for scientists, this law will allow NIH to break out of red tape and regulations that obstruct scientists from attending scientific meetings and sharing data.

Despite the generally positive reception of the Cures Act by NIH officials and research scientists, the bill was not without its critics. The principal criticism of the final product is that it constitutes a handout to pharmaceutical and medical device companies by substantially weakening the FDA’s regulatory check on bringing new treatments into the clinic.

For example, Sydney Lupkin and Steven Findlay point to the $192 million worth of lobbying collectively expended by over a hundred pharmaceutical, medical device, and biotech companies on this and related pieces of legislation. The goal of this lobbying, Lupkin and Findlay assert, was to give the FDA “more discretion” in deciding how new drugs and other treatments gain approval for clinical use – presumably saving a great deal of money for the companies that develop them. Adding weight to their assertion is the fact that President Trump is reportedly considering venture capitalist Jim O’Neill for FDA commissioner. Mr. O’Neill is strongly supported by libertarian conservatives who see FDA regulations as inordinately expensive and cumbersome, so it seems reasonable to worry about how Mr. O’Neill would weigh safety against profit in applying his “discretion” as head of the FDA. On the other hand, under a wise and appropriately cautious commissioner with a healthy respect for scientific evidence, we might hope that maintaining high safety standards and reducing the current staggering cost of drug development are not mutually exclusive.

Additionally, Dr. David Gorski writes of one provision of the Cures Act that appears to specifically benefit a stem-cell entrepreneur who invested significantly in a lobbying firm pushing for looser approval standards at the FDA. Once again, it is not unreasonable to suspect that there is room to reduce cost and bureaucratic red tape without adversely impacting safety. And in fairness to the eventual nominee for FDA commissioners, previous commissioners have not been universally praised for their alacrity in getting promising treatments approved efficiently… at least, not within the financial sector. Still, the concerns expressed by medical professionals and regulatory experts over the FDA’s continued intellectual autonomy and ability to uphold rigorous safety standards are quite understandable, given the new administration’s enthusiasm for deregulation.

It appears that this law will also allow pharmaceutical companies to promote off-label use of their products to insurance companies without holding clinical trials. Additionally, pharma companies can utilize “data summaries” instead of detailed clinical trial data for using products for “new avenues”. It is possible that these provisions were created with the NIH basket trials in mind (details here). However, as Dr. Gorski argues, without clinical trial data, off label use of drugs will be based on “uncontrolled observational studies”, which, while beneficial for pharma companies, are risky for patients from the perspective of patient advocacy groups. These fears are not without evidence – a recent article from STAT describes how the off-label use of Lupron, a sex hormone suppressor used to treat endometriosis in women and prostate cancer in men, is resulting in a diverse array of health problems in 20-year olds who received the drug in their puberty.

Another “Easter egg”, albeit unpleasant, awaits scientists and policy-makers alike. Buried in Title V of the law is a $3.5 bn cut on Human and Health Services’ Prevention and Public Health fund, without a proper explanation added to such an act. Given the outcry on the lack of public health initiatives in the Precision Medicine Initiative, one is again left to wonder why 21st century cures are focusing only on treatment and drug development and not on policies directed towards promoting public health and prevention of diseases.

In conclusion, the implementation of this law will largely depend on the current administration. With the NIH budget for FY2017 still up in the air, the confirmation of nominees still hanging in balance, this law is far from being implemented. Based on the provisions, it appears that overall biomedical funding will be boosted in particular fields, designated “priority research areas”. However, it shouldn’t fail an observant reader that this bill also seems to allow pharma companies a higher chance to exploit the consumers. It, therefore, still remains a question of whose priorities (consumers/patients vs. investors/corporations) are being put forward first and the answer, in our humble opinion, will be determined by a dialogue between the people and the government.

Sources/Further Reading –

Educate & Communicate: A Science Activism Manifesto

Science is often thought of as a monolithic entity, but it is actually a complex composition of a discipline, an institution, and a community, all focused on finding truth and knowledge in data and the natural world. Science as a community consists of people of all ethnicities and from all socioeconomic classes; talent is found everywhere, and we as scientists do not and should not limit our number to those with a privileged pedigree. Science as an institution is a pillar of modern society, supporting and enabling growth and progress previously impossible to achieve. Science as a discipline is an investigative practice that demands rigor, critical analysis, and substantive evidence to support the conclusions that we draw from the data. Science as a discipline to formulate theory may be apolitical, but as an institution and a community that is an integral part of modern civic society, science cannot simply be an idle observer. Atrocities have been committed in the name of science when the idea of the pure monolith prevails and is exploited by political regimes to suppress minorities, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and Nazi human trials. However, science has also been used to fight for the welfare of all people and to resist such regimes: Rachel Carson, Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, Max von Laue all used their privilege as scientists to fight for justice and the greater good. While the scientific discipline provides a path for pure theory, we are human, each with our own biases that guide our investigation, influence our analysis, and may even blind us to the truth. Ultimately, the application of scientific theory to society bears the imprint of our ideas and our biases, and we as a community bear responsibility for the results. It is therefore imperative that we distinguish the apolitical discipline of science from the institution and community of science, which are a part of civic society and inherently political. We currently hold privileged positions in society that are at risk in the contemporary political climate. The defense of science is our moral and civic duty. Furthermore, in defending ourselves, we should also take a stand to give a voice to those who cannot do so for themselves.

It has been three weeks since President Trump has entered office. It has been three weeks of chaos and confusion. In these three weeks, President Trump’s actions have threatened to tear apart the fabric of American society, wrought and held together for so long by people of all ethnicities, sexual, religious and political orientations. However, whereas his actions have largely focused on promoting protectionist values, it also appears that he and his cabinet nominees are determined on ignoring scientific evidence and denying the real dangers of climate change, as well as showing utter disregard for environmental protection. Their plans to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, with the help of the Republican Party, and the threat to abolish the Endangered Species Act all point to their contempt towards protecting biodiversity, the very proof of evolution. Their intention to deregulate the pharmaceutical industry, under the illusion of lowering drug prices, will risk the lives of patients. Their attempts to champion creationism and intelligent design over evolution in public education will risk the credibility of scientific facts. Meanwhile, the House committee on science, space and technology appears more eager to accept the President’s words despite what multiple media outlets have to say in their defense, even as President Trump proclaims any media outlet as “fake news” if they fail to agree with him. In addition, Trump’s hobnobbing with the most prominent anti-vaxxer, Andrew Wakefield, should already raise concerns about how decades of public health work to minimize infectious diseases and maintain public support will be undermined because of his ideology, especially when the anti-vax movement is gaining momentum. Even further, his claims to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, the law that upholds the separation of Church and State, also pose a major threat to the scientific endeavor.

The U.S.A, the country that still puts the highest amount of taxpayer money into scientific research compared to other Western nations, is currently being ruled by an administration that would rather shape policy based on pre-existing ideologies than hard evidence. Since this administration ignores scientific data regarding the dangers posed by climate change, restricts dissemination of scientific data to the populace who funded the research, subjects its doctors and scientists to a travel ban in the guise of “protectionism” when data clearly show that homegrown terrorists have caused far more deaths in the U.S. than immigrants from any of the seven countries on the ban list, it is our duty as scientists to stand up and take a stance. We can no longer afford to look away. We can no longer afford to remain in our comfortable positions as biomedical scientists whose careers are not currently threatened. We should use our privilege to stand up for those whose voices have been muted.

In these times when the foundations of the scientific community are threatened and evidence-based policies disregarded, the outpouring of support has solidified our unity. Already, scientists are taking action – a nation-wide and possibly global March for Science rally has been planned for April 22 (Earth Day). Prominent scientists across the U.S. have petitioned against the travel ban, and European scientists have offered laboratory space to scientists stranded due to the travel ban. Scientists from all walks of life are organizing to protect their communities; scientists are actively thinking about running for office and other positions to influence policy-making. These are all very encouraging, however, these actions are missing a key point – this is a battle of ideology, not policy or scientific literacy. As a recent study has shown, the public does not consider scientific questions that raise moral or ethical concerns as “science” questions. Another recent excellent article on how science journalism can combat this issue reports that science journalists should “listen, be curious and consider the non-science factors that shape people’s beliefs – because people’s beliefs shape policy, our society, and the world”. One may imagine that increasing scientific literacy should take care of such issues, however, that has not been the case. All too often, scientists  fail to properly communicate with the masses and are  unable to get the message across because they were too focused on explaining the basic science without taking into consideration the presentation of  facts.

This is not a temporary issue. Trump is not the only President who has or will challenge evidence-based policy and threaten the scientific community. However, it is crucial that we take action now because the dangers of climate change are imminent and we cannot afford to deny it anymore. Therefore, it is imperative that scientists come forward to educate and communicate with the public in a language and tone sufficient to start a dialogue. We start by communicating with each other, educating each other about our work. From there, we communicate and educate our family members and relatives, our friends, our communities and beyond. This has to be a grassroots movement – no top-down policy will fix the scientific literacy issue and lead American society toward a future where policies are based on hard evidence as  opposed to blind faith. This is how we can give back to the public, who provide the majority of funding for our work, and ensure that science does not belong to an elite population, but in the hands and minds of the people.

This is why we are calling on you, each and every scientist, ranging from technicians to postdocs, graduate students to faculty, to action. Educate and communicate with your science. Explain why it is necessary. Even if you talk to just one person a day, that can make a difference. That is where we start. If you want to do more, organize. Rally behind policymakers who heed scientific evidence and will champion such causes. Volunteer at high schools and colleges. Take part in science festivals. Celebrate science and its achievements sans the elitism. It is not about funding, or whose research is more important. It is about making science accessible to the masses, who have tirelessly supported and benefited from our work for decades and will continue to do so. It is about rescuing science from the clutches of political partisanship. It is about freedom to communicate our science, the protection of our community, and the advancement of our society.

For too long academics have been cooped up in their self-imposed exclusive isolation from the masses. For too long we have assumed that Science exists in a vacuum. We cannot afford this axiom anymore. We have to consider the social, political, and economic forces that affect the direction of scientific research. We have a moral and civic duty to fight for what is right and to prevent the use of science to advance fascist ideology. The time to take action is now. 

Here are some resources to help you take action in the short term –

Sincerely,

The Sackler Insight Team